Healthcare is Failing You. The Story of the Patient Who Taught Me Why.

If you believe your doctor – or healthcare – will help you get healthy – or keep you healthy – you will likely suffer from that mistake.

I understand why people rely on their doctors for their health. It is called healthcare, so it certainly seems like they would be in charge of, well, health.

And if you think this is a “doctors and healthcare are evil” article, you’re mistaken. Based on my over 25 years of being a physician, I firmly believe that most doctors genuinely care and do their best to help their patients.

The problem is, doctors aren’t trained to help people get well or stay well. They are trained to take care of sick people – particularly those who are acutely ill (like when you have a heart attack, stroke, cancer, or need surgery.)

And this is costing you your health – and likely, your life.

Look, I’m not blaming doctors or healthcare for being super focused on taking care of sick people. Frankly, this is what they are trained to do and what they are paid to do.

But that doesn’t help you get healthy or stay healthy.

Not sure? How about this?

Despite the most advanced and expensive healthcare ever, more people are sick today than at any time in history.

We have hundreds of millions of people in the US (billions worldwide) suffering from epidemics of chronic illness like high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, diabetes, unhealthy weight, Afib, and many others.

Six out of ten adults have at least one chronic disease, and the result is more than 2,000 preventable deaths in the US every day (that’s one person dying earlier than they should about every 40 seconds.)

And one of the reasons is that people are relying on healthcare to get them healthy.

Let me tell you a quick story about how I learned this from a patient – a time when I thought I was a great doctor – and then discovered I was failing my patients.

This was early in my career, and at the time, I was already enthusiastic about helping my patients avoid heart disease. I had founded the Mayo Clinic Heart Health and Performance Program, which was specifically designed to help people prevent heart disease. Every patient saw a dietitian, an exercise physiologist, and me, and our feedback was terrific!

People loved the care!

There was only one problem. Many of these patients weren’t getting healthier.

Yes, I prescribed the right medications, and for some, that’s all they needed. But the majority required more than just pills, and I didn’t know how to help them. I would tell them they needed to eat better, get more exercise, and lose weight, but they weren’t doing it.

And, frankly, I wasn’t taking responsibility for their failures. I was the cardiologist. I thought it was someone else’s job to help them with their lifestyle change. But, I was increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress my patients were making.

Then I had the patient visit that showed me I had it all wrong.

Steve was a patient of mine in his early fifties. He was a successful businessman, but his health was a mess. Steve was 50 plus pounds overweight, with high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugars to go with it.

He would come to see me every three months or so, and the story was always the same. He hadn’t changed his lifestyle, and his numbers were not good, and we would add more medications.

As you might imagine, I got to the point where I didn’t look forward to his visits. He was a charming man, and I enjoyed talking with him, but I also felt like our visits were unproductive. He wasn’t getting healthier, and, frankly, I thought it was his fault.

But then Steve said something that changed my mind and completely changed the way I approach patient care.

What he said was, “I wish I could see you every day.”

I was completely surprised because I didn’t think our visits were helping him, but then he explained that after our visits, he was motivated to get his health on track for a week or two, but then life would happen, and he would fall off.

Being a successful businessman and leader, he recognized he needed a program that provided a clear path to stay on track. He asked if Mayo Clinic had such a program. When I told him Mayo did not have such a program, but there were lots of programs like Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, and many others, he said, “I’ve tried those, they didn’t work for me, they aren’t doctors – they aren’t part of my healthcare team.”

That night, on the drive home, I realized I had it all wrong. I thought it was someone else’s responsibility to help people with their lifestyle changes. But Steve helped me recognize that I – and all healthcare professionals really – have a great opportunity to make a difference.

I was failing my patients because they were coming to me to improve their health. However, by focusing only on what I was trained to do – which was primarily to discover what was “wrong” and try to fix it with medications and procedures – I wasn’t helping them with what they truly needed to improve their health.

And if I wanted to make the most significant difference, I needed to combine medical expertise with proven strategies to help them make the lifestyle choices they wanted to make.

That was the day I started learning how to help my patients get healthier.

And stop failing them.

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